What I Meant to Say… About Repentance

Hello there friends and happy Monday to you all. Today’s post is a refinement and clarification of what I shared yesterday about repentance and how it affects our church culture and method of evangelism. Since I tend to write better than I speak, I decided to take a page out of Dave Workman’s book and start a Monday morning blog series entitled “What I Meant to Say…” to clear up Sunday’s sermon and potentially retract or reword things I said the day before. Dave is a Vineyard pastor out of Cincinatti, Ohio and has some great practical wisdom for inexperienced preachers like myself. With that disclaimer for the series, here we go!

Up to this point, whenever I have heard the word ‘repentance’ it has always produced a knee-jerk reaction of guilt and shame. I tended to revisit all my previous sins, think about how much Jesus had to suffer just because of me and vowed to do better. I also went through a season where I tried to work up feelings of remorse and contrition and believed I had never truly repented of my sins until I was a blubbering mess. That phase didn’t last too long because I could never work myself into that sort of mental state and left my time of confession before God more depressed than when I went in.

In my study of the words ‘repent’ and ‘repentance’ this week, I came to understand why I associated feelings guilt and shame with those particular words.

The Modern Understanding of Repentance
The English word ‘repent’ comes from the french words ‘re’ and ‘pentir’. ‘Pentir’ means “to feel sorrow” and ‘re’ means “again”. To feel sorrow again (and again and again) is the original meaning of the modern word ‘repent’. The words ‘repent’ and ‘repentance’ came into use during a particularly dark time in church history. Between 1250 and 1350, the words grew in popularity along with the Catholic doctrines of purgatory and indulgences. The general thought was that if you didn’t repent “enough” then your sins would follow you into death and you would enter into a place called “Purgatory” – a sort of low grade torture chamber designed to further “purify” someone before they could qualify to get into heaven. To oversee this system of repentance/penance the Catholic church empowered certain priests to be ‘penitenciaries’. These men heard people’s confessions of sin, deemed wether or not they were truly contrite and, if so, prescribed the proper form of penance – prayers, money, self-flagulation, whatever.

As this doctrine spread, churches began to be known as ‘penitentiaries’ (pronounced the same as the word above describing the priests). “Penitent-iary’ literally means “a place for penitent ones.” This word became associated with prisons during a period of reform within the prison system. The idea was to make prison like a monastery where inmates would fast, pray and meditate on their sins in order to produce life change. This is also why their rooms became known as “cells.”

Interesting historical facts aside, did you catch it? This way of understanding repentance produced a system of sin management and fear and eventually led to the church functioning as a prison! That is not the Gospel! It is also not the biblical understanding of the word “metanoia” the greek word we translate into English as “repent”.

A Biblical Understanding of Repentance
“Metanoia” literally means “after/with understanding”. It became associated with the notion of repentance because after someone had been confronted with a new reality, a new understanding of the world, it was supposed to cause them to live differently. Metanoia came to mean “change after understanding”.

So when Jesus and John the Baptist say “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” they are saying ‘God’s superior power is breaking into the world all around you, life as you know it will soon cease to exist – how will you live in response to that!?’ Before Jesus, during John the Baptist’s ministry, the only thing people could do was confess their sins, get washed in water as a symbol of their clean hearts and intentions and then live a life of expectancy looking for the Messiah. When Jesus came on the scene, he demonstrated that we could have a much more interesting and interactive involvement with God’s Kingdom breaking in all around us… but that it a different post altogether.

Does metanoia carry with it undertones of sorrow and grief over past sins? Absolutely. But it is primarily a cognitive word, the change that is produced externally happens because of a paradigm shift within the mind. The Apostle Paul captures this perfectly in Romans 12, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” (emphasis mine). Transformation through revelation is the heart of biblical repentance (metanoia). As we are confronted with new truths about the character of our Father, the nature of His Kingdom and who we are because of Him we will have to adjust and come into alignment with those things. In this way, the Christian life is a non-stop journey of repentance. And we will go on repenting into eternity as we discover new truths about this endless and fascinating God we call Father.

How This Effects Our Congregation’s Culture
Christ died to set us free. Through the Cross, God removed our sins from us as far as the East is from the West, He threw them into the Sea of Forgetfulness, He washed us clean by the Blood of the Lamb. Whatever metaphor or Bible verse you want to use, the message remains, our sins (past and present) have been paid for, in full, by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus! I believe this means that they are totally destroyed and they no longer have power over us. So why would we want to perpetuate a culture of bondage to sin through an unhealthy understanding of repentance? Why would we want to keep reliving the things Jesus died for? When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his life, his death and his resurrection – through Him we ourselves died to sin, why should we live for it any longer?

Do people make messes that need to be cleaned up? Yes. Yes they do. And repentance is the process of cleaning up that mess, mending relationships and making wrong things right to the best of our ability. Sure, there are going to be some feelings of remorse that enter in – as there should be when we damage our relationships with God or other people – and apologies will have to be made, but the focus isn’t on feeling bad, the focus in on cleaning up your mess and moving forward.

We refuse to hold people’s past sins over their heads here at VCC. We refuse to do that because we don’t believe Daddy does it. If you’ve repented – cleaned up your mess, sought restored relationship and are committed to living differently – then that case is closed, never to be brought up again.

How This Effects Our Methods of Evangelism
There are lots of ways to evangelize and spread the Good News about Jesus. I am partial to some over others and some I think are downright ridiculous and ineffective.

When John the Baptist ministered, he interacted differently with different groups of people. To the regular, run of the mill sinner, John confronted them with the Reality of God’s Kingdom and the coming Messiah. He taught them how to give up their past ways of sinful living and be made right with God so that they could enter fully into God’s purpose for their life.

When John interacted with the Pharisees it was a different story. John insulted them, called them a brood of vipers (children of the devil), said they needed to repent and bear fruit or else God was going to cut them down and throw them on the fires of hell. Guess how many Pharisees became followers of John? None. It wasn’t that John’s message was untrue, it was simply that his method of presenting that truth was ineffective. Interestingly, Jesus used the same methods as John when interacting with the Pharisees, and very few Pharisees followed Jesus.

We see this “turn or burn” approach used today – perhaps most famously by Westboro Baptist Church, the “God Hates Everything” people. How attractive do they make God look? Again, parts of their message are true, but their methods are totally bogus. We have to remember that Jesus is the Way as well as the Truth.

The way Jesus ministered to people is the way I want to minister and the way I want our congregation to minister. The way Jesus ministers looks a lot like love, forgiveness, compassion, service and healing. These radical methods of sharing the love of God brought people face to face with the Kingdom of God. They were confronted with a new Reality – God is real, He loves me, He isn’t angry or disappointed with me, He is willing to do anything and everything it takes to make a way for me to come home. That is the way the truth should be presented, it should bring life and lead people to the Father.

It isn’t my job to convict people of their sins or convince them that they are dirty, rotten scumbags – that is the Holy Spirit’s job. My job is to love people in such a way that they become aware that they are being encountered by the God who loves them. My job is to carry the Kingdom of God with me wherever I go so that people are confronted with a new way, a better way, of living. Like John the Baptist, my job is to tell them that if they are willing to leave behind the life they have been living, then the God who loves them will be able to bring them into the plans and purposes that He has for them which are so much greater than the plans they have for themselves.

There is a way of talking about and living out repentance that keeps people slaves to their sin – I don’t want any part of that. I want to talk about and live out repentance in a way that brings freedom. I want to believe every word in the Bible and those words say that when I submitted my life to Jesus and chose to serve Him and Him alone then He claimed me as His own and, in doing so, He freed me from my slavery to sin and made me a son in the Household of God. “Who the Son sets free is free indeed!” I’ve been set free by the Son of God and it is my sincerest desire to see others set free by the Truth of the Gospel.

God has not called His Church to be a prison camp of sin management. He has called us to be sons and daughters set free from sin by the power of the cross, those continually being transformed into the likeness of Jesus as we encounter new truths about who God is and how much He loves us. God has called us to be bearers of Good News, partners in the work of the Kingdom and friends to His Beloved Son. That is a life worth living. That is a call worth pursing. And it all begins with the simple and powerful act of repentance.

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